On Thursday, June 27, the high representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and vice-president of the European Commission, Federica Mogherini, made a statement and said the European Union is deeply concerned about the Bashar Assad regime's attacks in Idlib, in northwestern Syria. We are all aware Syrians are still suffering under never-ending shelling, airstrikes, bombings and attacks after more than eight years of conflict, especially now in Idlib, the last stronghold of the Syrian opposition.
According to Mogherini's statement, more than 230 civilians lost their lives in the last three weeks, while more than 330,000 have fled their homes. Three million more remain at risk, Mogherini said on behalf of the union. Not only the EU but also many other global actors are, and should be, concerned about the escalating violence in Idlib against civilians. However, today there is more to it than that.
On Thursday, something else happened. The Syrian regime targeted an area located near a Turkish observation post in Idlib twice in two hours. Regime forces attacked the 10th observation post in the Zawiya region with artillery and mortar fire. One Turkish soldier was killed, and three others were wounded during the shelling, Turkey's Defense Ministry said in a statement. The ministry also stated that the attack was carried out on the post in the de-escalation zone and added that the Turkish military retaliated.
As Russia and Turkey agreed in Sochi to set up a demilitarized zone in Idlib to separate the regime and opposition forces on Sept. 17, 2018, the Ankara attache for Russia was summoned to Turkish military headquarters and informed that the Syrian regime's attacks would be punished in the strongest way, the Defense Ministry said. Despite the agreement to prevent more aggression, the Syrian regime hasn't stopped its attacks in southern Idlib. However, the recent attacks have reached a worrying extent. As a guarantor state for the Assad regime, Russia is the one and only country that can prevent the regime and Iran-backed militia attacks.
Reports on recent regime attacks
The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) had already sent reinforcements to the area a day before, on June 26, as the area has been increasingly targeted by Assad's forces over the past three months. Daily Sabah reported that it was the sixth such attack near the observation post, with similar attacks by the regime having been reported on April 29, May 4, May 12, May 31 and June 8.
During a phone call on May 13 with Russian President Vladimir Putin, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accused the Assad regime of "seeking to sabotage" Ankara's cooperation with Moscow through its latest offensive in the northwest of the war-torn country. In other words, Erdoğan had already warned Russia that the regime's violations of the cease-fire targeting the Idlib de-escalation zone had reached an alarming level.
Of course, the timing of the regime attacks, which resulted in the death of one Turkish soldier, raised questions as President Erdoğan is expected to have face-to-face meetings with President Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump during the G20 summit in Osaka.
As we recall, the agreement between Erdoğan and Putin came just 10 days after the presidents of Russia, Turkey and Iran met in Tehran on Sept. 7, 2018, where they had failed to agree on a cease-fire for Idlib.
Idlib on trio's agenda
Idlib was the most important topic on the agenda of the summit. Since the agreement between Russia and Turkey came right after the trio's Tehran summit, we can deduce that Iran was not happy about an agreement it was not part of. Following the Russia-Turkey agreement, Iranian newspapers were filled with articles complaining about "Russia's betrayal." Of course, the Assad regime was also frustrated, as it was planning to take control of Idlib, spilling tons of blood and declaring victory. However, this dream was blocked by Putin and Erdoğan.
Putin and Erdoğan's agreement pulled a rabbit out of a hat, so to speak, and was one of the clearest signs demonstrating how determined Putin was to end the war in Syria by cooperating with Turkey, unlike Iran. According to the agreement, the borders of Idlib would be protected, and Idlib's status would be preserved.
In addition, terrorist groups, including the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), rebranded al-Nusra Front after its split from al-Qaida, or Tanzim Huras al-Din (Huras), a new radical group on the ground that was founded last year objecting to the trajectory followed by the HTS, would be liquidated. However, the very first and biggest attack on the agreement came on the night of the deal. A Russian IL-20 spy plane was shot down in Latakia. The downing of the plane was a sign that some circles were displeased with Erdoğan and Putin's rapid solution to the Idlib crisis.
It was alleged that the plane was accidentally shot down by a Russian-made missile system, which Moscow sold to Syria, as they tried to repel an alleged Israeli strike that night. It was claimed that it was exposed to friendly Syrian fire that was directed toward an Israeli air raid nearby.
I never believed that it was friendly fire. The Russians have been tolerating Israel, which has conducted hundreds of airstrikes over two years in Syria on the bases of Iran-backed militias. On the other hand, Israel has never targeted the Russian military. Instead, it has been seeking good relations with Russia, which is basically operating as the air force of the Syrian regime. Even though the Kremlin accused Israel of informing them just a minute before the airstrikes, Putin chose to say that the downing of the plane was a result of "a chain of tragic accidental circumstances." So, it would not be in Israel's interest to cause the downing of a Russian plane. But in the end, was it really a tragic accident?
The Assad regime's goal
As I mentioned above, it was and still is no secret that the Assad regime was dreaming of a devastating offensive in Idlib with the help of Russia but couldn't get permission from Moscow. In addition, Russia has been strengthening its position in Syria, which has made Iran feel sidelined, especially after the Idlib offensive was averted at the end of 2018.
As Russia is the boss of Assad regime supporters, it can't be challenged openly. What if a group tried to get to Putin and took their revenge out on the demilitarization deal by "accidentally" downing the Russian plane? It might sound like a conspiracy theory, but I believe it could be the reality.
Since the beginning of 2019, the regime's attacks on Idlib have increased, despite the agreement. Even though the Kremlin said no offensive was planned after the summit, Erdoğan hinted in February that there might be a joint military operation if needed, vowing that they will continue to work for the full implementation of an Ankara-Moscow protocol. The escalation inside Idlib, of course, has been whetting the Assad regime's appetite. Besides, Iran is looking for any possible failure in the Russian-Turkish deal.
The visit to Iran
Assad was in Tehran at the end of February and met with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. It was his first public visit since 2011 to his closest ally and only guardian left to protect him.
During the meeting, Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran's elite Quds Force, who appeared on the front lines across Syria recalling the attempts of Iran's Shiite expansion plans in the region, was sitting next to Assad. Iran has shown with this meeting that it will never abandon Assad after it spilled so much blood in the war-torn country.
Remembering Putin's surprise visit to the Russian Khmeimim airbase in Latakia and behaving like Assad was a low-ranking bureaucrat, most importantly, the meeting was a message from Iran to Russia that it will continue to fully support the bloody dictator.
As there are internal rifts between pro-Iran and pro-Russian forces in Syria, we were already expecting some consequences, which will also affect Idlib. However, the question is whether Russia and pro-Russian Assad regime soldiers will be able to stop pro-Iranian soldiers and militias from attacking the last remaining stronghold of the opposition and the shelter for millions of civilians or drop by the wayside.
For Iran, of course, Assad himself should be the first person addressed by Ankara. Reports in the last couple of months have claimed that the Syrian regime also expects Turkey to interact directly with them. In mid-April, during Washington's increasing pressure on Iran day by day, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif paid an official visit to Turkey and told reporters that he "had a long interview with Bashar Assad" before he came to Ankara.
"I will be giving details of these discussions to Mr. Erdoğan," he added before Erdoğan received Zarif at the presidential complex, where they had a closed-door meeting lasting over an hour. As Zarif's visit was just before the start of the recent assaults on Idlib, we can now figure out what kind of offer Zarif brought from Assad to Erdoğan along with Iran's needs from Turkey after the U.S.' increasing oil sanctions.
According to several sources, the Kremlin wants a deal between Turkey and the Syrian regime on a political level, but such contact cannot happen; as for Ankara, Assad, who eagerly and intentionally killed his own people, is still a butcher and cannot be trusted. Some in Russia also said Turkey had no right to create a "safe zone" inside Syria unless it sought and received the consent of Assad, like Maria Zakharova, a Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman. However, Putin hasn't uttered the name Assad during press conferences. He preferred to use words like "Syrian Republic" or "Syria" instead of "Assad," which signals that he wants to put some distance between himself and the Syrian ruler.
However, Russia's position has been fluctuating for a while. Is it caused by the talks between Ankara and Washington and the fate of the area east of the Euphrates, while Turkey is still one of the three guarantor countries of the de-escalation zones and a partner of the Astana process?
Since the beginning of 2019, Turkey has been in talks with the U.S. to establish a safe zone east of the Euphrates, and with Russia over maintaining the demilitarized zone in northwestern Syria. Turkey has been insisting that this safe zone will be under the control of the Turkish military and Turkey-backed groups. That could be a trigger for Damascus and Tehran, but it is not on the top of the list for Moscow.
The S-400 matter
Then, there is only one reason left. As I wrote a couple of times in this column, some in the U.S. want to squeeze Turkey between the two superpowers, Moscow and Washington, over its purchase of the S-400 defense systems.
If Ankara gives in to Washington, it would jeopardize the improving situation in Idlib. And Moscow is now pushing Turkey from the other side and showing how things can go backward in Idlib if it steps back from the S-400 purchase. Washington, on the other hand, is making statements about its concerns over the growing escalation in Idlib and talks about the risks of new chemical attacks. That sentiment is not concerned about the lives of civilians.
The U.S. is just provoking Moscow and making the Russians increase their attacks alongside Assad; that is Washington pushing Turkey from the other side to not buy the S-400s. Since the S-400s Turkey purchased will be delivered next month, we will see what kind of effect it will have on Idlib.
As President Erdoğan said earlier, Assad wants to disrupt Turkey's relations with Russia. Even though the Syrian regime's foreign minister, Walid al-Moualem, told reporters in Beijing, "We hope our military and the Turkish military do not fight. This is our principled stance," they still seem ready for it. If Russia doesn't stop Assad, the Turkish military will start to respond more forcefully to Assad's escalation tactics. It is not hard to see where it will lead.